The Tourism Industry still getting back on its feet
By Josepheen Tarianga.
In March of 2020, Vanuatu closed its borders to visitors as the pandemic raged outside of the Archipelago. Vanuatu shut itself away from the world for over 2 years and was described by the Guardian to be one of the last Covid hermit nations to open up to International tourists again. The borders opened up on the 1st of July but the country’s tourism industry still appears to be getting on its feet. Many resorts, hotels, and tourism businesses have shared their experiences with the Vanuatu Business Review with the arrival of the first wave of international tourists since the borders opened.
Vanuatu’s economy greatly relies on its tourism industry. Before the Pandemic, the direct and indirect contributions of tourism in Vanuatu of VT46.8 billion accounted for 48% of the country’s Gross domestic production (GDP) as shown by World Bank data from 2016 to 2018. Additionally in 2019, with over 135,000 cruise ship arrivals in the country, another VT2.1 billion was injected into the country’s economy.
With this reliance, once COVID-19 ravaged the world, Vanuatu’s tourism industry and therefore its economy was greatly affected.
According to the National Tourism Business Impacts Survey for TC Harold and COVID-19 Pandemic, there was a 70% fall in full-time employment and a fall of 33% in part-time employment in the tourism sector. 1,633 employees had been placed on unpaid leave because of the Pandemic, 462 on paid leave and 300 employees had been terminated.
With the drop in employment opportunities in the country, many skilled workers left the country seeking
employment under seasonal work programs. This resulted in a shortage of skilled workers in the tourism industry being one of the challenges that Vanuatu confronted before the borders opened. Efforts were made to allow the soft opening on July the 1st On Friday the 8th of April 2022, Vanuatu Prime Minister Bob Loughman, announced July the 1st as the set date for the border reopening. This catalyzed the country to make the necessary changes to accommodate the international tourists that the soft opening of the country’s border would bring.
The Ministry of Health mobilized to increase the vaccination rates across the country by a staggering amount. On January the 23rd of 2022 only 65% of the population had received at least one dose of the vaccine, only 184,045 doses were administered. The latest update of vaccination rates on July the 3rd showed that 83% of the country’s population had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. A total of 246,436 doses were administered to over 220,125 people surpassing the COVID-19 Taskforce’s midyear goal for vaccinations within the country.
The Vanuatu Tourism Office (VTO) worked with the tourism sector, different ministries, and partners to get
Vanuatu Tourist-ready. VTO established protocols for safe border opening and joined a coalition to help combat the shortage of labor in the tourism and hospitality sector that worked to help register and train Ni-Vanuatu into the tourism and hospitality sector.
The VTO also made huge efforts in advertising and marketing the country as a tourist destination in anticipation of the borders reopening.
All businesses in operation were made to develop a Standard Business operation to allow COVID safe
operations for all businesses.
Additionally, the country loosened its COVID-19 safety protocols almost completely. Quarantine was made no longer mandatory, no travel caps on arrival, no pre-registration and pre-travel approval required, and post-arrival covid tests were done away with.
The experience of hotels and resorts after the opening of the borders.
In collecting the experiences of different hotels and resorts throughout Port Vila, several establishments were contacted to contribute the information compiled here.
After 2 years of being closed, The Ramada Resort by Wyndham recorded 224 room arrivals from the 1st of July to the 14th of July.
The Interim General Manager (GM) of Ramada, Frederick Maclean stated that Ramada was pleased to work as an international resort again and the overall guests that stayed at Ramada were happy to be able to travel again and to visit the country as for some it was returned visits to the country.
“There was a certain disappointment from visitors as many operators are not back in line and they found that they could not do as many activities as they would have liked” stated Maclean.
“Whilst we kept some of our staff, we are now able to re-employ people in all departments and this is very important for us to help assist staff and their
Nasama Resort also reported pleased tourists that had stayed at the resort. On July 16th Nasama recorded 14 rooms with international tourists.
“We are very happy that the borders have reopened; however we think there needs to be more of a push in marketing Vanuatu. There are still reports of travel agents telling customers that Vanuatu’s borders are closed and there are no flights” shared Sarah Vogelsberger, the Nasama Resort Manager.
The Havannah opened in July with a 50% occupancy rate, a pleasing result as it provided the Havannah Team an opportunity to work back into a comfortable environment said Greg Pechan, the Owner of The Havannah.
“It has had a very positive experience with the first tourists that have arrived since the opening of borders. Everyone we have hosted enjoyed their stay; many have stated their willingness to return for another stay in the future.
“The adverse economic and social impact of the prolonged closure of borders were set to create serious
issues for our country. The safe reopening of borders has put the country back on a road to recovery,”
said Mr. Pechan.
However, Mr. Pechan flags Airline connectivity to still be an issue.
“We are hoping that increased flight services are not too far away, but understand this could be challenging.”
Predictions for the tourism industry
There is a shared belief among the resorts and hotels that as more and more tourists flock back into the country more business activity will return and the tourism industry will improve as there is a present demand for travel to Vanuatu.
The Interim GM for Ramada, Mr. Maclean said;
“We believe that we will see a strong increase of tourists in the next 6 months, as we are getting more flights into the country from [ Air Vanuatu, Fiji Airways, Air Calin] and as this happens, we should start to see other business activities coming back and increased the various offers that we currently have with the soft opening of the borders.
Ms. Vogelsberger referenced data on Expedia and Bookings.com that shows a demand increase for travel to Vanuatu by 12% in the past few weeks.
“We are hoping that demand increases and the bookings start to increase. We have been receiving steady numbers of bookings coming in but occupancy throughout the year remains low” she said.
Mr. Pechan emphasized the “pent-up demand” for people in Australia and New Zealand to travel as he stated that Traveller research sentiment showed that people are wanting to travel outside borders, internationally but are not keen on long-haul destinations.
“The Pacific has therefore become a key destination for Australians, New Caledonia, and New Zealand visitors with Vanuatu ideally placed as a destination of real attractiveness. Bookings moving forward are looking solid” he said.
The demand for consumers’ desire to travel was also made apparent by the engagement from a global social post that VTO had made announcing border opening. The post had reached 95,000 people by the 15th of April organically, it was liked (and loved) by 675 people, 172 comments, and over 90 shares.
What the reviews are saying
Despite the experiences that hotels and resorts attest to having had with the first wave of tourists, the experiences that truly matter when it comes to Vanuatu’s tourism industry is that of the tourists.
There have been many reviews following the first few weeks of tourists back in the country. While many have praised the experience, environment, and services they received from different hotels and resorts others did not have such great things to say.
On Trip advisors, a review dated July the 26th from a stay at the Nasama resort on the 16th of July praised the staff of the resort and its facilities as well as the well-maintained state of the resort and its well-kept grounds. Another review of the resort.
Two other reviews of Nasama posted to Trip Advisor on July 10th and July the 13th used the word “Paradise” to describe their stay at the resort.
Havanah received a similar review on Trip Advisor dated July 16th from a recent stay at the Havanah that applauded Havanah as a honeymoon destination that did not disappoint.
On Bookings.com, Ramada resort By Wyndham Port Vila ranked fairly well at 8.1. Guests that stayed at the resort after the borders had opened all had good things to say about the friendly staff and the clean and comfortable environment of the resort. However, the reviews did flag that the resort” Is not quite up to speed yet” and many guests expressed issues with the food.
The Holiday Inn Vanuatu received two Trip Advisor reviews that made wonderful mentions of the staff of the resort. One of the reviews dated July 19 was well detailed and honest. It raised concerns such as that things were not as adversities upon arrival at the resort and some places within the country are
yet to be in operation.
“From conversations with various locals, it appears the Holiday Inn is in a better situation than some other well-known resorts who were not ready to open to tourists, albeit there is still a lot of work to be done at this resort” was mentioned in the review.
The other review dated July 16th credited the number of family activities that Holiday Inn offered, the
entertainment, Housekeeping, and availability of transportation but the review made a note of the food being tasteless and overpriced.
Warwick Le Lagon received what seems to be the most negative reviews among the hotels and resorts as the guests that have arrived in the few weeks that the borders have opened
expressed many issues with their stay at Le Lagon.
A review posted to Expedia on July 17th of 2022 stated that the resort had been grossly neglected during the 2 years and was in no condition to open with the state of its gardens, the condition of its facilities, and the high prices it maintains.
On Trip Advisor, two reviews wrote on July 14th and July the 6th of 2022 simply stated that Le Lagon was not ready for guests and went on to state why.
These reviews reflect on the current state of the country’s tourism industry as guests hold Vanuatu’s Hotels and Resorts to the standards they were at before the Pandemic.
Tourism support businesses
The businesses that depend on tourism to operate had taken a direct hit from the border closures. Where many had closed up shop during the 2 years, others remained open in support of the local tourism campaign encouraging domestic consumers to tour Vanuatu and some closed permanently under
the Pandemic’s pressures.
Now that the borers have opened, tourism support businesses are dusting themselves off and expect more business once the entire industry has fully woken from its years of slumber.
The first month of border reopening has been encouraging for Vanuatu Ecotours.
July and December are traditionally the busiest months for our day tours on Efate said Rob Macalister, The Managing Director of Vanuatu Ecotours.
“In July 2022 we operated day tours at approximately 40% of what we operated in July 2019. The majority of these bookings were from tour desks, OTAs, and direct bookings. There were very few day tour bookings from wholesale partners in July 2022, but bookings from these wholesalers are strong from August onwards, which is a positive sign” expressed Mr. Macalister.
“The biggest problem identified by Vanuatu Ecotours is the poor state of tourism infrastructure. Despite
promises made during the pandemic, the Vanuatu Government has yet to provide any financial support to tour operators through the Tourism Business Support Program, to help them build back infrastructure”
Vanuatu Ecotours recorded a healthy demand for outer island packages and outer island experiences with several packages and charters sold, the first of which will operate in August.
“These trends are consistent with the forecasts for post-pandemic tourism, where clients are looking for ‘bucket-list’ experiences and are prepared to spend more on their first overseas holiday after 2.5 years,” said Mr. Macalister.
The Ecotours Managing director expressed his disappointment because there are signs that tourism
in Vanuatu will have strong demand post-pandemic, but there is yet to be support, from the Government to help tourism businesses get their products and infrastructure back to the required standard.
Mr. Macalister also cited Air Vanuatu and the unreliability of their outer island services to be a major problem given the international demand for outer island tourism.
“We can only hope that Air Vanuatu gets its act together very quickly,” said Mr. Macalister.
The lack of Government support for tourism support businesses was also raised by Vila Hope Tours.
Vila Hope tours have serviced around 36 visitors since the borders have opened, the operator of the tours advised that while business for him is good, the number of tourists in the country is still low and tour operators that own a fleet of buses would be likely to make a loss rather than a gain if they were to be operational at present.
“It has been difficult since tour operators cannot place their brochures at hotels and resorts because those brochures advertise many sites that have yet to open. I have guests that want to visit sites but are disappointed because the sites are still not operational” said the Vila hope Tours operator.
“For the sites that are open, many are run down and charge way too high. Evergreen waterfalls has facilities that have not been maintained, slippery paths are overgrown but the costs charged are VT2,000 per tourist. Visitors have expressed their disappointments.”
The operator stated that there is a lot to fix up before Vanuatu welcomes more people back and that the VTO should have mobilized to do thorough inspections before the borders had opened;
“There was so much money spent on marketing and advertising but not enough money spent by the Government to help tourism businesses and operators get their resources and facilities back up to standard before the borders opened.”
Elvis Lite is among the many Handicraft Mamas that have returned to the handicraft markets in anticipation to sell her locally crafted products but she found that while business is good, it is yet to return to what it was before the pandemic.
“Tourists have returned but the Pandemic has been hard on everyone and they do not buy as much as they used to but we have just opened, that will change,” said Elvis.
Margaret and Ruth stated that during the Pandemic, they were among the women that shut away their crafts and closed up the Handicraft market when the borders closed and had only returned to the Market in June to prepare for the border reopening.
“That 2-year period had given us time to craft and create so now the Handicraft market only sells local-made products. Before, we also sold Chinese-made souvenirs but we do not need to anymore” said Mrs. Ruth.
“We understand that business is still returning to normal. Once the cruise ships start returning in September, we will stand to earn a lot more.
Vanuatu has had 2 years to prepare for the borders reopening and where some have worked diligently to ensure standards and quality are maintained once that period was up, others have not. It is a widely shared sentiment among hotels, resorts, and tourists that have visited since the borders have reopened and support tourism businesses that there is room for improvement as there is much left to fix and make ready.
While the country has made great efforts in advertising its readiness, the proof is in the pudding, while some businesses have strived to retain quality, others have yet to re-establish themselves as what they were prior to the pandemic. Visitors had high hopes for the country’s tourism industry that were not met.
As the borders have just opened there is still no normalcy in the operations of tourism industry-based businesses but the industry is highly optimistic that there is only up to go from here as it works to improve itself and welcome more tourists in the coming months.